Monday, 21 January 2013

Losing yourself

St Matthew's Church,  Oxford, 18th November 2012

Today I want to talk briefly about one of Jesus’ sayings that can be found in all four Gospels. Indeed two of the Gospel writers – Matthew and Luke – repeat it, as if to underline it. Here are four different versions of the saying.

Matthew 16:25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

Mark 8:35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Luke 17:33 Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.

John 12:25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I want to talk about this saying because in the 10.30 services at the moment we are thinking about change and loss. I said two weeks ago – in my sermon at the 10.30 service on the question: ‘Does God Change?’ - that life inevitably involves change and loss. I talked about the way God changes and loses things. One of the biggest things we can lose is our life. And God himself loses his life on the cross, to regain it at his resurrection. And at some point we must all lose our life – in the sense that we will all must die.

So at a basic level all four versions of this saying contain a comforting truth: that death is not the end – there is life after death. ‘Whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ says Jesus according to Mark.

But, of course, the saying says more than that because it contrasts trying to hold onto your life, implying that that is not a good thing, with not trying to hold onto it, suggesting that that is a good thing. And this is surely paradoxical. Having life is surely a good thing so why should loosing it also be a good thing.

Note that Luke and John seem to be trying – not entirely successfully - to make the saying more rational, less paradoxical than its version in Matthew and Mark.

The saying is always given, as if a maxim, a matter of fact, rather than say an instruction, and in the context of Jesus explaining what it means to follow him. Note the ‘For’ at the beginning of the Matthew and Mark versions’ ‘FOR whoever wants to save his life will lose it, etc. and in the Luke version I quoted Jesus has just been talking about his coming again and ‘For’ is definitely implied.

In Matthew and Mark, and on another occasion in Luke, the saying is given, in the context of Jesus having just talked about the need for the disciple to ‘take up his cross’ when following him. But whilst the saying is given in that context it is separate from the instruction. In none of the gospels does Jesus doesn’t give any explanation for why it is necessary to lose your life in order to find it.

A way round the paradox is to presuppose that the ‘life’ that to be lost in the first half of the maxim means life here on earth and the life to be gained in the second means life after death, life in heaven. In other words you have to lose A to gain B. But listen again to the version from Matthew

‘For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’

Here it is not so clear that the life that Jesus is talking about is two different things. He seems to be saying that you have to lose A to gain A. And the crucial words here are ‘for me’. If you lose your life for me you will gain it: whether that life is life here on earth or life in heaven.

Another question about this saying is what does Jesus mean by lose? Does he literally mean you have to die to live? Is the loss that he is speaking of here just physical loss, i.e. death, or is it more than just physical life? Now life is surely not just breathing and having a pulse. Jesus is not just talking about the physical functioning of our lungs and heart or even our brain but our life in all its dimensions, life in all its fullness (cf. John 10: 10).

Our life is our identity, what we think of as our self – what we are good at and what we are not so good at, what we like about our self but also what we are ashamed of. When Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again as a condition of entry to the kingdom of God he is surely re-phrasing the saying we have been thinking of and emphasising, in another way, the necessity of loosing ourselves – to start a new life. So the saying we are thinking of could be reformulated as:

‘For whoever wants to save his self will lose it, but whoever loses his self for me will find it.’

But our life is not just our identity it is our relationships - with our family and friends. And when we think about life in that sense then the saying becomes even harder surely. So when Jesus says, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14: 26) it’s even harder to accept. But Jesus here is surely not saying that it’s good to hate people, and in particular those who love us, but is connecting with the idea that we must loose ourselves to find ourselves.

There is even a sense which it is necessary to lose God – our conception of God at the very least – in order to find him.

Here is Simone Weil on the subject.

‘He [God] emptied himself of his divinity. We should empty ourselves of the false divinity with which we were born. Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts is to become nothing. It is for this we suffer with resignation, it for this that we act, it is for this that we pray. May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself though me.’

This idea that giving up this life is a necessary precondition for following Jesus, for finding God is a pervasive theme in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament. Here is just one example of Paul on the subject – from his letter to the Philppians (3. 8) ‘For his [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.’

This is such a big issue that it is difficult to do it justice in a short sermon. It connects up with other big gospel themes such as sacrifice being part and parcel of love. It’s also hard to summarise. Perhaps all that can be done is let the words speak for themselves.

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